Hard Legacy of an Iron Lady
Margaret Thatcher is a stunningly controversial figure in the United Kingdom. Despite the fact that she is the only person in British history to lead a party to three general election victories, her death was celebrated in places like Cardiff, Liverpool, Glasgow and Leeds. There was even a rally held at Trafalgar Square in the heart of London. Why?
David Cannadine offers an explanation in "Margaret Thatcher: A Life and Legacy" (OUP, 2017), which is a good introduction to the “iron lady” for foreign readers not versed in British politics. Margaret Roberts grew up in the English Midlands as part of a lower, middle class family in a time and place when those class distinctions mattered. Two things allowed her to put her small town upbringing behind her. The first was her education at Oxford University, where she majored in chemistry. The second was her marriage. Denis Thatcher had the wealth and inclination to support her entry into politics.
Thatcher moved forward in politics because she was a good study. In 1959 she won a seat in Parliament, and when the Conservatives won the general election in 1970, she became the education minister. Prime Minister Edward Heath, like many others, found her an abrasive personality and believed this minor position would keep her contained. In running the Education Ministry, she studied the issues and earned the respect of the bureaucracy. After the Conservatives lost control of the Government, the party rebelled against Heath. In 1975 Thatcher challenged him for leadership of the Party, and won on the second ballot, becoming the first female to lead a British political party. Cannadine notes she won more because she was not Heath—a rather unpleasant individual himself—rather than because of any genuine support for policies that she hoped to implement. Many among the Conservatives looked down on Thatcher for her lowly social origins.
Power, though, goes were power goes. The British economy was in bad shape in the 1970s and the Labour Party lost a vote of confidence. In the 1979 general election that followed the Conservatives won a majority of seats in the House of Commons. Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, and the first with a science degree.
Thatcher, though, was in a weak position. Inflation and unemployment remained high. Her economic policies seemed to be making the situation worse. Many in her Cabinet were not loyal to her and wanted her to go.
A number of factors began working to her advantage. Her political opponents were basically an incompetent lot. No one in the Cabinet had better ideas, nor were any of them willing to resign and challenge her openly. The Labour Party splintered with a branch becoming the Social Democrats, diluting the anti-Thatcher vote. Oil from the North Sea began to generate wealth for the nation. Then Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. The irony of this event was that Thatcher was trying to extricate Britain from these colonies and wanted to reduce the Royal Navy, but the assault on British authority could not be tolerated. She was a good war leader, out-debated leaders of the other political parties in the House of Commons and stood up to aggression. “We have ceased to be a nation in retreat,” she declared. Her job approval numbers crossed over 50 percent for the first time.
In the next general election, the Conservatives, for the first time in the Twentieth Century, increased their majority in Commons from one election to the next. Most of that support, though, was in southeastern England. Thatcher began privatizing state-owned corporations, which, combined with early efforts to sell public housing to the residents, began to increase the wealth of the nation. The economy grew an average of 3.2 percent per year. Thatcher was spoiling for a fight with the unions, though, and that came in 1984 after the government decided to close a number of coalmines and pits that were losing money. The National Union of Mineworkers went on strike, refusing to hold the vote that was legally required. Thatcher’s government had stockpiles and many miners refused to strike. Thatcher won, but the bitterness was strong.
Thatcher was skeptical about European unity; a view the rest of the United Kingdom seems to be adopting these days. She approved the digging of a channel tunnel that connected London and Paris by rail, which was tangible, but she was hostile towards the more fanciful, intangible ideas behind the European Union. Her downfall came over an intra-party dispute about the conversion rate of the British pound to other European currencies.
Cannadine’s Thatcher is intelligent and principled. It is also easy to see why she was disliked, coming across as both harsh and vindictive. This book is a good introduction to its subject and easy to read. Readers to either side of the divide on this cold, smart lady could hardly find a better place to start.